No #47traitors here;The Logan Act’s namesake just wanted peace with France

If you’ve been following national politics some, you may have heard, from both the left and the right, people naming the “Logan Act” as a way to penalize those Republican senators who sent a letter to Tehran behind Obama’s back. This isn’t the site for it, so I’ll leave it to Charlie Pierce to  explain the atrocity.

What I can do, however, is make “Logan Act” less of a partisan mantra – and explain why we care about it over here. It’s actually an oooooold amendment to the Sedition Act: not the 1917 Act, whose buddy the Espionage Act is currently being used to prosecute whistleblowers, but JOHN ADAMS’ 1798 version. Trying to make like George Bush and get on with a sorta-war with France, Adams had to contend with two soldiers, a current Army medic and one veteran-chaplain-poet, neither of whom thought the newborn nation they’d fought for should take on naval kabuki as its first order of business.

220px-GeoLoganThe ink was barely dry on the Constitution when the first of America’s Wars for Unclear Purposes began: the naval duel with France known as the Quasi-War. By the time the latter ended in 1800, two soldier-dissenters had tried to prevent it—Quaker physician/militiaman George Logan {left} and former Continental Army chaplain Joel Barlow—while Matthew Lyon, now “the asp” of colonial politics, was imprisoned for publishing his objections , calling President Adams names, and publishing “confidential” memos meant for the elite.

The two who tried to prevent it were both Francophiles. Logan, whose grandfather had been secretary to William Penn, was a physician who had spent the war attending medical school in Switzerland and traveling in Europe; upon his return, he hobnobbed with his local militia and began serving in the Pennsylvania legislature.

Fluent in French and something of early enthusiast for the French Revolution, Logan watched closely as Adams responded to French naval maneuvers, made uneasy by unresolved treaty obligations and a new U.S.-Britain treaty. Also watching closely was Yale poet Barlow, veteran of the Battle of Saratoga, now living in France, having rushed to help the French with their Revolution. Barlow wrote home and encouraged Madison to send commissioners to meet with Talleyrand, horrified when said envoys were unable to get him that appointment.  As naval insults continued and anti-French sentiment was high in Congress, Logan took it upon himself to go to France, to see if he could possibly talk to the Directory and test the waters for peace.

While Logan was taking the Quaker path and listening, back home Adams had secured new funds for the U.S. Navy and recalled General Washington in preparation for a ground war. He also acted to crack down on the Federalist press, which in classic 18th-century flavor was a flood of insults to the “tyrant” Adams. Congress then passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, the latter of which made it a crime to criticize the President. Fines were set of up to $2,000 for any person convicted of uttering, writing or printing any “false, scandalous and malicious statement against the Government of the United States; or either House of the Congress of the United States, with intent to defame… or to bring them […] into contempt or disrepute.”

There was a special Logan Amendment added to the Act, written especially for George Logan, whose freelance diplomacy was regarded as traitorous. Logan had, however, met with Talleyrand; after securing the release of some captured U.S. sailors, he sailed for home in August carrying a list of possible terms for peace negotiators. When he arrived in November, he was immediately, if briefly, arrested.

Thinking about all this is enough to turn me into Alanis – as in, “Isn’t it ironic…” To rail against GOP senators who love war against Iran by threatening to use legislation meant to stop an enthusiastic Quaker from preventing a war – that’s jujitsu of a worthy sort.

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One thought on “No #47traitors here;The Logan Act’s namesake just wanted peace with France

  1. Pingback: Now at the Philly Inquirer, sine the jujitsu | I Ain't Marchin' Anymore

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